Devon, PA.  Peter Haworth has rightly drawn our attention to the new Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document, “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority.”  Much should be said in response to this document, and much has already been said in fora worthy of FPR readers’ attentions (here and here, for instance).  Unfortunately, I have not had time to reflect upon the document itself, and I do not have time now to write anything of substance at the present moment.

I would be tempted simply to share an anecdote.  One evening not so long ago, as I drove down the road with my family, my wife chuckled to herself.  I asked her what was so funny, and she said something to this effect: “Given what we all know about human nature, how puerile, pathetic, and violent it is, it strikes me as more than naive that there are actually persons out in the world who think the solution to the ills and abuses of this or that community or institution is simply to create another one, bigger and more powerful.”  She was, that is, laughing at the false idol of the modern age, whose inmates, having abandoned their Maker, go in search of ever more authoritative layers of bureaucracy, in hopes that someday they will find the “God-layer,” that administrative order so panoptic, efficient, and rule-abiding that all shall be well at last.

There are some, I have noticed, who now accuse the Pope of being so gullible as to set up a false idol as our prospective the nomos of the earth; I am not so doubtful of his wisdom, but I do find the confidence he and other members of the clergy display in large secular institutions troubling.  Has modernity not produced enough teratological horrors already?  Is not the solution to our present ills to slay such monsters?  To rediscover the natural scale to which every human enterprise restrains itself if only it is not distorted by the abyssal ambitions of men who would be their own gods?

Well, for the present, I shall simply repeat remarks that concluded my essay on Caritas in Veritate, published more than a year ago (in two parts: One and Two).  That essay focuses primarily on Pope Benedict XVI’s account of justice as a minimal condition of charity and seeks to locate that profound and convincing theology within a broader account of human nature.  This focus explains why so few readers suffered through to the end.  But, at the end, I noted how odd I found the Pope’s optimism regarding international political institutions and how inadequate the accusation of “relativism” is regarding the absolutist and immanentist managerial elite that populates the political class of Europe, the United Nations, and most of the Americas.  I wrote:

Benedict is “aware of the ways in which charity has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning, with the consequent risk of being misinterpreted, detached from ethical living, and, in any event, undervalued.”[1]  As the later pages of the encyclical outline, a charity rooted in technocratic systems that neglect the fullness of personhood results in the soul-destroying subsidies of the welfare state, in which a state incapable of love provides the necessities of physical life to masses it leaves to rot spiritually in marginalized housing projects.[2]  Charity of this sort does not care how its object lives, only that it has received the necessary quotas to sustain life—it sustains biological cells, but does not nourish persons.  Further, because our age lacks almost entirely in a sense of the unconditional dignity of the human person, it often advocates fiercely for arbitrary rights to hedonism and immoral license, while failing to respect “the right to life and to a natural death.”[3]  In willfully blinding himself to the true image of the human person, modern man transforms the actions of charity into grave evils and tawdry and frivolous perversions.  At its best, charity without truth “degenerates into sentimentality.”[4]  That is, it manifests itself as soft expressions of good will utterly lacking in intelligible content or sustained direction.

In saying this, Benedict responds to the opposition more charitably than it deserves.  It is true that, in mundane circumstances, liberal society often professes a congenial relativism, and it is equally true that the technocrats of modern charity—who discover the redemption of man in contraception, efficient abortion, and maximized “private” freedom with neither self-government nor moral judgment—reject the identity of “Agápe and Lógos”, the “God of the Bible” who is “Charity and Truth, Love and Word.”   But this does not mean they lack a conception of truth or that they are in fact mere sentimental relativists.[5]  They rather advocate an immanent and materialist absolute.  They do not simply greet discussion of mankind’s dignity as the image of God with shrugging, accepting shoulders, but turn on it with all the indignation and contempt of a purse-lipped Belgian minister of parliament.  This claim of God giving man life and knowledge in love they view as a tyrannical imposition, as the greatest threat to unaccountable self-authorship imaginable.

And, of course, they are correct to feel so threatened.  As Blaise Pascal observed, men fear that religion might be true—because the terrible consequence of our existence having been given to us in love is that it actually might matter to someone other and greater than ourselves, and thus, we may in some sense belong to another and not to ourselves.  For sexual and investment purposes, modern man demands emancipation from such divine possession even at the cost of knowing the truth about himself.  Modern self-ownership does not result in a relativism regarding other peoples’ activities, either.  Rather, it has a logos of its own: the quantitative maximization of pleasure protected by the concealment of others’ suffering and relief from the consequences of others’ and our own actions and beliefs.

Such a principle of truth—of the immanent and absolute materialist telos of secular man—requires an immense superstructure of state control.  One needs the State to prevent the birth of children out of wedlock; the State to feed and educate those children who somehow “get born”; the State psychologically to condition society not to blame the separated parents and to condition the children not to feel unloved and neglected despite having parents who neither love nor care for them.  One needs aid programs to feed the hungry abroad so that one need not hesitate to eat all one wants, however gluttonously, at home.  One needs not simply public “spaces” free from reminders of moral judgment, of our created identity and transcendent destiny (which may, after all, include eternal life in Hell); one needs a public realm positively scoured of all indication that human actions are of any consequence whatsoever so long as those actions are not undertaken in explicit “hatred” of oppressed racial and sexual minorities.  In brief, in order to live for no one besides oneself it takes—certainly not a village, but—a bureaucracy of global scope and power.

This is the truth, the logic, to which modern liberal society subscribes.  That Popes from Paul VI to Benedict XVI should be so willing to work with the bureaucratic superstructures of this logic for charitable ends is, initially, puzzling.  But one may justly remind oneself—as Benedict seeks to remind the world in Caritas in Veritate—that man is a creature brought into being by Truth and Love, who dwells in them, and who, finally, lives for them.  He cannot look at his own face, or into the face of another, and long ignore the absolute and all-encompassing call of human personhood and the personhood of God.  He discovers there, in that face, that charity and truth precede everything and order everything.  We cannot even speak the word “justice” without a mouth that has come to us as a gift of God’s charity; and so, in speaking the truth in love, the Christian reminds every person and all of humanity that love is “a force that has its origins in God” and that each “person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him . . . he becomes free.”[6]  Benedict’s encyclical, like all Catholic social teaching, is a summons to freedom that calls us not primarily to the revision of social and political forms, but to the discovery of our foundations in the God who gave himself till he was emptied.


[1] Ibid. no. 2.

[2] Ibid. no. 57.

[3] Ibid. nos. 43 and 51.

[4] Ibid. no. 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. no. 1.

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Most of the recent comments surrounding the Vatican’s latest document are non-starters for the simple fact that no matter which side of the ideological divide they come from, they simply overestimate the efficacy of international law and the global institutions it generates and, allegedly, governs. While liberals in Europe and the U.S. have promoted a thick conception of the rule of international law, conservatives have expended energy (needlessly, I think) decrying the incursions this body of law allegedly makes against state sovereignty. But in truth, there is little-to-no hard evidence to support the conclusion that states blithely adhere to international law, particularly when it cuts against their own interests. Moreover, the last two decades has witnessed a steady retreat from the idea of “universal institutions” to smaller, region-based governance. Even the “mighty” World Trade Organization has been forced to sit back and watch as its attempts to inject uniformity in global trade rules come undone through the rapid growth of regional trade and development pacts. And even “universal” transnational governance organizations like the International Civil Aviation Organization (which currently has 190 state parties) suffer from the tradeoff between universal acceptance and almost no hard powers. ICAO, like many global fora, provide an opportunity for states to devise cooperative action on a select number of key issues (e.g., aircraft hijacking), but the terms of these arrangements are often open-ended, weak, and subject to a laundry list of qualifications and escape clauses.

    The Vatican’s latest envisions a comprehensive global finance authority, but it provides nothing close to a workable roadmap to bring it to fruition. And the hard truth is that there is no roadmap. Global interests are too diffuse to yield the type of consensus the Vatican is trying to promote. Arguably, a global institution would be the most “efficient” means of solving complex coordinative and cooperative problems of an international scale, but such hopes have to be dashed against the jagged rock of infeasibility.

    Also, I noticed the muted Carl Schmitt reference in this post. But as even Schmitt knew, the international legal order which was once the hallmark of European global jurisprudence could not hold against the advent of modernity, the immature arrival of globalization, and the displacement of Europe as the “center of the (legal) cosmos.”

  2. Resentment of the Gift is Mankind’s most omnipotent mal-incentives. We fill the hole with bling and wonder why we are surrounded by a landfill.

    The light is enough for me, however much I work assiduously to darken it. Camus knew, nearly.

  3. Reinterpreting reference 4, James Wilson seems to forget “love the sinner, hate the sin”. The sin – meaning aiming for the wrong target – began with David Hume, the doubting Thomas who in 1740 argued that we cannot know what goes on in other people’s heads, therefore scientific truth can be no more than what we can all see and agree on, and morality can be no more than a matter of personal opinion. Until those assertions are answered – which they can be in light of what mankind has since learned about energy waves, the atomic structure of matter, the encoding and feedback of information and the chains and networks of switching circuits which enable computers and brains to draw inferences and correct errors – there will be no hope of blowing up Gabriel’s “jagged rock of infeasibility”. But there IS hope. One man started this. One man redeemed mankind, and once we understand the problem for which we seek answers, we have His promise: “Seek and you will find”.

    One of the things you might find in mathematics is the relationship between a variable and a value. On the idea of “a comprehensive global finance authority”, Gabriel says “the hard truth is that there is no roadmap. Global interests are too diffuse to yield the type of consensus the Vatican is trying to promote”. The road map here is a value, with authority laying down the law as a smaller value: which roads we may or may not go down. The Christian understanding, however, is a variable: “love God, and your neighbour as yourself”. This is not a map, but a compass and coordinates, which leave us free to make our own map and authorities to commend routes – but not to command them, for everchanging road works may sometimess make them impractical.

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